Intertwining Social Substance and Personal Migration Tales
Author Isabel Wilkerson's sectional presentation of the three personal migration tales in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration results in a somewhat back-and-forth storytelling trajectory for her history of black Americans' Great Migration saga. But Wilkerson's intellectually shrewd and technically astute capabilities enable her to craft an overall narrative text that's coherent and compelling. The nearly 600-page text is organized into five parts, and in the subsections within the five parts, Wilkerson fashions what might be called "fragment tales" relating to each of her three personal migration tales. There are about 18 subsections that Wilkerson uses to relate the Foster migration tale, the Gladney migration tale and the Starling migration tale.
Part 4, entitled "The Kinder Mistress," is the largest section of The Warmth of Other Suns. Part 2, "Beginnings," runs 202 pages, and Part 4 is 206 pages, together making up some two-thirds of The Warmth of Other Suns.
Wilkerson has an overarching theme for each of her five parts, and this theme is identified with a quotation from writings by iconic African-American intellectuals. At the start of Part 4, "The Kinder Mistress," she quotes from Langston Hughes' elliptical and poignant poem, "The South":
The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth …
Honey-dipped, syphilitic —
That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face …
So now I seek the North —
The cold-faced North,
For she, they say,
is a kinder mistress.
It's through the jagged-edged, white racist themes of Hughes' exquisite poem that Wilkerson portrays the trajectories of the three migration tales, from the white South's Negro-hating realm to the North and West's hoped-for Promised Land. It's especially in Part 4 where Wilkerson's narrative of her three migration tales relates substantive evidence of the multilayered, systemic infrastructure of white racism in the South, an infrastructure that commenced in early 1880s, following the U.S. government's cynical political scuttling of the post-Civil War Reconstruction democracy.
In the early section of the book (Part 2, "Beginnings"), Wilkerson prepares her readers for the institutionally vicious and cruel aspects of white racism under Jim Crow:
Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted, "Burn, burn, burn!" as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it.
Across the South someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as "stealing hogs, horse-stealing … jumping labor contracts, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks … or trying to act like a white person." One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents.
In closing out this discussion, Wilkerson quotes from one of the major modern-day books on vicious and cruel Negro-phobic aspects of Southern racism during the first half of the 20th century. That book is Herbert Shapiro's White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery (1988), from which Wilkerson refers to a chilling observation by Shapiro: "Perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had. All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching."
It is in Wilkerson's subsections on the Starling migration tale where I think she achieves her journalistic best and crafts an engrossing narrative. Starting at Page 106, through the following nearly 70 pages, Wilkerson's gripping narrative gift, which won her a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, soars as she relates the multilayered and horrid tales of George Swanson Starling's grandparents' and parents' plights as sharecroppers in Alabama and as fruit pickers in the Citrus Belt of central Florida. "These [were] some of Lil George's [Starling's nickname] earliest memories," Wilkerson tells her readers:
Each year, he saw his grandfather return from the planter's house after another dispiriting settlement and recount to the family what had transpired. At the end of every harvest, the planter would call John Starling [Starling's grandfather] up to the big house. John would knock on the back door, the only door colored people were permitted to enter, according to southern protocol. He and the planter met in the planter's kitchen.
"Come on in, John," the planter said. "Come here, boy. Come here. Have a seat. Sit down here."
The planter pulled out his books. "Well, John," the planter began. "Boy, we had a good year, John."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Reshard [the planter's name]. I'm sure glad to hear that."
"We broke even [said Reshard]. You don't owe me nothing. And I don't owe you nothing."
The grandfather had nothing to show for a year's hard toiling in the field.
"This is all he ends up, 'We broke even,'" George would say years later. "He has no money, no nothing for his family. And now he's ready to start a new year in the master's debt. He'll start all over again. Next year, they went through the same thing — 'We broke even.' " (Pages 52 and 53)
In The Warmth of Other Suns, the tale of George Swanson Starling's grandparents' lives as sharecroppers — enduring cruel and amoral oppression — functions as a systemic template for overall American racist oppression. So does the tale in Part 4, of Starling's parents and of Starling himself as fruit pickers in the Citrus Belt. Wilkerson's deft telling of the combined three migration tales leaves a chilling picture in readers' minds of the South's viciously dehumanizing white-supremacist interface with black American citizens, from the 1880s through the next 60-plus years of the 20th century.
Wilkerson's engaging historical narrative places her book in the top ranks of similar books on white ethnic groups' migrations into mainstream American life — groups like Irish Americans, Jewish Americans and Italian Americans. For this comparison, I suggest reading Gay Talese's account of the Italian-American immigrant saga, Unto the Sons (1992), alongside The Warmth of Other Suns.
Of course, while migration brought both black folks and white ethnics to the doorstep of mainstream America, the ethnocentric bigotry that WASP groups mobilized against white ethnic groups (anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, among others) did not amount to a broad-gauged and tenacious barrier to mainstream status. On the other hand, the "Negro-phobic bigotry" that all white groups (WASPs and white ethnic groups combined) amassed against African-American migrants out of the South from 1910 onward has been a broad-gauged and tenacious barrier to equality for African Americans.
It is, I think, unfortunate that Wilkerson's narrative design for The Warmth of Other Suns doesn't adequately relate how "Negro-phobic bigotry" imposed a fierce ceiling on equality of status for most of those 6 million black folks who fled the South to the North and West during the Great Black Migration. As a result, now in the first decade of the 21st century, another Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Eugene Robinson, observes in his book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America (2010) that African-American society contains "a large abandoned minority with less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction's crushing end." Perhaps some 30 percent of today's African Americans reside among the "abandoned minority."
Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, with a somewhat different narrative design, could have advanced our understanding of how the Great Black American Migration experience — ravaged along its path by multilayered "Negro-phobic bigotry" — arrived at what Robinson calls the "abandoned minority [trapped] in poverty and dysfunction."
Be that as it may, The Warmth of Other Suns has been in print for several months and has spent several weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. No doubt a much deserved recognition.
Martin Kilson, a professor emeritus at Harvard University, was the first African American to teach at Harvard College. He retired from teaching in 1999.